This time last season, a young Australian U20s outside back hailing from country New South Wales was making his first NRC impressions on the wing for the NSW Country Eagles.
The kid from Glen Innes in northern NSW quickly established himself as a bit of an intercept king and by season’s end had accepted an invitation to cross the country and do a pre-season with the Western Force, with the carrot of a Super Rugby contract on offer.
12 months on, Alex Newsome is back in the Eagles’ jersey, but far from being the rookie of year ago, now he’s a bonafide Super Rugby starter forcing long-term Country fullback Andrew Kellaway to the wing.
But it’s been a rocky start to the NRC in 2017 for last year’s finalists, with the Eagles last weekend becoming the first side to feel the heat – literally – of facing the Fijian Drua at home.
Newsome confirmed it was hard work.
“It was about 32°C and real humid heat, so it was pretty fatiguing,” Newsome told RUGBY.com.au this week.
“There really isn’t much you can do (to prepare for it) other than hydration and good preparation.”Newsome said that Country took a game plan into the match designed to slow the Drua down and it had worked pretty well up to halftime, where they went into the sheds just 10-7 down.
After the break, the Drua scored two converted tries in the first five minutes, but Newsome didn't believe that’s where the game got away from the Eagles.
"Obviously, they scored those two quick tries and I think they did the same thing against Melbourne, where they scored three tries in the same period the week before,” he said.
“But we were pretty confident we had the firepower in our team to do the same thing back to them and the way the NRC is played, anything could have happened.
So, no, we definitely didn’t think the game had got away from us at that point, we thought we just had to get the ball back and hold onto the footy, because we felt that we were making good inroads when we did hold onto it.
“Unfortunately, in that second half, we just made too many errors and turned the ball over, so we weren’t able to properly capitalise on our possession.”
NSW Country were in Fiji for a day either side of the game and Newsome said the post-game function put on the Eagles by the Drua team and the locals was a hugely memorably part of the trip.
“We had an after-match function down the road from where the Drua guys were staying and they put on big traditional BBQ for us and we all sat down together and exchanged some playing kit.
“It was a really good night - they had some cultural dancing - and it was a pretty good experience being able to sit down with our opposite numbers.
"It’s what it’s all about, really.”Newsome’s rapid rise is a testament to the formation of the NRC back in 2014.
It’s been helping the best of the club and U20s players around the country take the next step every season since.
“I really enjoyed the environment with the Eagles last year and the group of guys we had.
"We played really good footy on the back of our culture and that environment,” Newsome said.
He credits the opportunity afforded him by Country and a good country upbringing, to an extent, for helping him take the next step in his rugby dream.
“I think I’ve just learned a lot over this last year," Newsome said.
"Obviously, playing NRC last year, getting a crack at the Force, all year through Super Rugby, it’s just all been about learning as a player.”
The opportunity to head west and train with the Western Force was too good to refuse and Newsome jumped at it with the knowledge that a contract was available if he was good enough.
“Once I got over there, I didn’t feel out of place - I felt like I really had the skills and the game to make it at the next level,” he said.
“It was about proving myself to the rest of the players and the coaches, but at the same time, you realise that there’s so many little areas in your game that you need to improve on if you want to make the step up.”
“Once I got amongst the (Force) boys, I just knew subconsciously I was always on trial.
"When you’re trying to compete for a contract, every little moment at training matters - every little drill, every session, you’re out there to compete with others to earn a contract.
“That’s the way I looked at it, that I had to prove myself, learn off other players and the coaches and not waste an opportunity.”
The hard work paid off and just before Christmas, Force coach Dave Wessels gave him the good news - he was in.
“I was pretty happy - it made for a good couple of weeks off over Christmas!” Newsome laughed.
"Obviously, I was pretty happy.
"I knew it was a big step, but it sort of meant nothing to me unless I really did something with it, so as soon as (the contract) was done, I was like ‘yeah, awesome’ but then it was onto the next goal, which was debuting in Super Rugby.”The debut came, but perhaps not as soon as he wanted.
The Force’s first game of 2017 was against the Waratahs, a game any NSW lad would be pencilling in and Newsome was named on the bench.
He was all set, but he never got on.
He’d done everything you possibly could to make your debut except the actual ‘play rugby’ bit.
He played five minutes off the bench the following week, in the win over Queensland, made his starting debut in Round 5 against the Crusaders and played every game thereafter.
His career was underway.
Fast forward to last month, however, and the Western Force decision means he’s in a bit of limbo currently.
He’d even re-signed with the Force for two more years by season’s end, but now he’s looking for a new home.
One thing’s for sure - he doesn’t want to go overseas.“I want to be a Wallaby, so yeah, I’m keen to stay in Australia,” he said.
“I’m just in the process of figuring out where I’ll be for the next two years.
"My agent’s been really good for me in a busy year, and I’ll hopefully have that sorted in the next week or two.
“I’m still talking to the (Force) boys over there every week.
“The majority of the guys are still over in Perth and are waiting to see what their next move is, but it really has made the guys tighter, if anything else.”
The NSW Country group is pretty tight-knit, too, and they’ll need to draw on all of that to get their NRC campaign back on track.
The game in Armidale against Canberra isn’t quite "must win" for the Eagles, but a win over the Vikings will certainly make life easier.
Newsome knows that it’s no easy task, though.
“It’ll be a challenge," Newsome said.
"Canberra beat Perth and you saw what Perth did to the Rams last Sunday, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.
“We’re going to be quite desperate to notch a win, too, none from two is a disappointing way to start the year, but at the same time we’ll be confident going into a home game at Armidale.
“And it’s only an hour or so from Glen Innes, where I grew up, so all the family and friends will be up there - it’s going to be a great weekend.”
The NSW Country Eagles face the Canberra Vikings in Armidale on Saturday, kicking off at 1pm AEST, broadcast LIVE on the FOX SPORTS website.